Confessions of a Reluctant Climate Project Collaborator

By Micha Rahder, Louisiana State University §

Let me start with a confession: I never wanted to work on climate change.

Laguna del Tigre National Park, Guatemala. Photo by Micha Rahder.
Laguna del Tigre National Park, Guatemala. Photo by Micha Rahder.

Don’t get me wrong – I am no climate change denier. But following my academic passions – first ecological and later anthropological – has historically led me to the lively entanglements of forests, not to the atmosphere. In contrast to the centrality of life in my curiosity and imagination, climate was not just dead (for death too is part of life), but lifeless. The thesaurus agreed with me, aligning “lifeless” with boring, tedious, dreary.

More than disinterest, I even began to resent climate change. I noticed, while working on a Master’s in Environmental Studies around 2007, that climate change was all-pervasive. Scheduled speakers, funding opportunities, calls for papers, popular press coverage, and everyday conversations all swirled around climate, leaving my beloved forests by the wayside. Worse yet, the forests that did get some attention were somehow no longer lifespaces and sites of unruly diversity, as I knew and loved them—they were carbon stocks.

Climate change swept through environmental discourse and practice like warm ocean currents in an El Niño year. When would the oscillation swing back toward life? How could I resist the powerful translation of ecologies into new econo-climatological metrics?

 

Translation: Forest à Carbon

  1. Forest
    For rent
    Rent apart
    Parts per million
    Millions on the market
  2. CO2. Used by Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
    CO2. Used by Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

    The process of building and stabilizing Actor-Networks, by i) defining a novel problem and corresponding solution (problematization: global carbon cycle imbalance), ii) defining actors by their roles in solving that problem (interessement: forests as carbon stocks), iii) assigning new relations between actors (enrolment: carbon markets), iv) ensuring that assigned spokespersons and those whom they represent align (mobilization: forests, no longer rooted, move with market trades) – (Callon 1986).

  3. The goal and outcome of anthropological comparison, a betrayal, to communicate by differences without reducing them to sameness, controlled equivocation (equivocation: forest as carbon stock and forest as lively ecologies existing in partial connection, replete with excess) – (Viveiros de Castro 2004).

 
II.

Things change. The climate has changed; ecologies too. The worlds of climate science, ecology, and anthropology are learning each others’ values, slowly and unsteadily. I have changed: changed fields, earned a few degrees, landed a tenure track job (rare in the academic climate), and given up on resentment.

About that rare job – I landed in a joint geography & anthropology department, with climatologists for colleagues. One of them, Dr. Kristine DeLong, asked me upon my arrival to join her in a project involving climate science outreach with Native American tribes in Louisiana and New Mexico.

I hesitated. A climate project? I never wanted to work on climate change.

I wondered. Native Americans? My research has focused on forest conservation knowledge and institutions in Guatemala. Surely I was not qualified. Was I being invited under some misapprehension of what I might do, or know, as an anthropologist?

I considered. Collaboration and interdisciplinary projects pose a challenge, and I like a challenge. They are also an important good for the academic institution at which I would like to earn tenure. The project touched on social justice, an important core of my academic and personal worlds. Maybe I could learn to harness some of the power of climate change that I had previously resented.

I joined the project.

 

Becoming anthropologist

  1. My first Master’s advisor was an ecologist. When I told him I wanted to study tropical forest ecologies, including the people who lived in them, he told me, “if you want to study people, go talk to an anthropologist.” I talked to an anthropologist about studying scientists.
  2. I am always already anthropologist. “Hey, you there, anthropologist!” calls out the climatologist, and I respond. (With apologies to Althusser).
  3. “Perhaps what we must face in thinking responsibility and justice is the existence of the inhuman as threaded through and lived through us, as enabling us, and every being/becoming, to reach out to the insensible otherness that we might otherwise never touch” (Barad 2012).

 

III.

Atmosphere
Atmosphere. Used by Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

We set about grant writing, proposing two-day outreach sessions packed with climate information and resources. Once funded, we began planning our activities in detail, in coordination with the South Central Climate Science Center (SC-CSC). Our first session will take place in April 2016 in Louisiana, and our second in New Mexico in the fall.

Now, we – Dr. DeLong and I, our graduate assistant Jacob Warner, April Taylor, Sustainability Scientist and Tribal Liaison at the SC-CSC, and other assistants, consultants, and helpful experienced folks – meet via conference call every other week to review presentation materials, plan discussion frameworks, and work through regional scientific, political, and cultural particularities.

Throughout the process, I have struggled to define my interests and role. I added language to the grant proposal problematizing the conceptual dichotomy and historical inequities between scientific and indigenous knowledge. I added a sociocultural section to the scientific literacy and policy-focused agenda of the outreach programs. I added an ethnographic component to the project, involving note-taking during the sessions, and interviews with both participants and facilitators after the fact. I often feel peripheral, added more than incorporated.

I have continued to be anxious about how others read my presence in the project. I refuse to be an interpreter, a translator, a guarantor of ethics, or to reduce ethnography to assessment. But what I refuse and what others perceive may never quite align – no doubt they, too, are struggling to be understood on their own terms. Yet, nevertheless, we muddle along in the productive spaces of equivocation.

Mostly I have struggled not to reinvent the wheel. I may be new to climate change, to North American anthropology, but others are not. The more I encounter questions and problems, the more I discover the work of others – including plenty of indigenous scholars and organizations, such as Kyle Whyte (2013a; 2013b) or the Menominee Sustainable Development Institute – that has wrestled with these problems before me. It is reassuring, in this new realm, to rely on their expertise.

 

Expertise

  1. Experts are made in institutional and material relations. I have a series of letters behind my name, certifying my ability to add novel methods and perspectives, to turn a project interdisciplinary. These also certify me to qualify the expertise of others, to choose the materials, discourses, and institutions to which I add authority by citing them.
  2. I have no idea what I’m doing.
  3. Scratch that – I am an expert at studying experts.

 

IV.

The thing about collaborations is they change you. It turns out, amidst all my anxiety of how my collaborators were perceiving me, I was holding on to some assumptions of my own.

I steeled myself against essentialized notions of anthropology, in the process presuming to know the perspectives of “scientists” or “bureaucrats” as they looked back at me. Having done ethnography amongst such groups before, I should have known better.

Most of the resources I use to understand and build my role come from April Taylor, the Sustainability Scientist and Tribal Liaison. I suspect I read them differently than she does, but that is why I am on the project – reading differently is a role I can fill, and comfortably. Even when I think I have struggled my way alone through searches to something new, I will find April sitting there waiting for me to catch up.

And it was Dr. DeLong who suggested in one of our planning meetings that we not refer to our outreach sessions as “trainings” (though this is in the grant proposal title), as it implies a hierarchical, unidirectional transfer of abstract knowledge. What we want instead is a more open exchange, and to establish ongoing relations. These are my words, not hers – a translation – but it was her idea that has me awkwardly renaming our “sessions” throughout this piece.[1]

I have started speaking up more during our biweekly meetings, and listening more closely as well. I am still reading, and learning, and changing.

In planning discussions about differences between scientific and indigenous ways of knowing, doing, and being, I begin to sense the creation of new partial connections—connections between me and my collaborators, and between diverse and seemingly incommensurable worlds: sea-level rise, traditional foods, seasonal shifts, sacred sites, ritual practices, model predictions, values, relations, ecologies, and connections to place. Climate, it seems, is finally coming to life.

 

Adaptation

  1. Tikal. Photo by Micha Rahder.
    Tikal. Photo by Micha Rahder.

    The process of changing to fit with new conditions. As collaborators meet in new encounters, we shape each others’ conditions of knowledge and possibility. Requiring openness, curiosity, and mutual influence.

  2. In evolutionary theory: both a product of change (a trait that has been selected for) and the process of change (via selection). “Life transforms to meet the contingencies of its changing environment and in doing so changes that environment. By degrees the environment becomes absorbed into the processes of life, becomes less a static, inanimate backdrop and more and more like a house, nest, or shell – that is, an involved, constructed part of an organic being” (Margulis and Sagan 1995).
  3. Contrasted or paired with “mitigation” as strategic responses to climate change, planning changes in ways of life for a changing world. Indigenuity (indigenous ingenuity, built from long histories of knowing as doing, relation with place, and responding to environmental and colonial change) will be central to the decolonization of adaptation (Wildcat 2010).

 


Works Cited:
Barad, Karen. 2012. On touching—The Inhuman That Therefore I Am. Differences 23(3): 206–223.
Callon, Michel. 1986. Some Elements of a Sociology of Translation: Domestication of the Scallops and the Fisherman of St Brieuc Bay. In: Power, Action and Belief: A New Sociology of Knowledge? J. Law, ed. New York: Routledge.
Margulis, Lynn and Dorion Sagan. 1995. What Is Life? Berkeley: University of California Press.
Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 2004. Perspectival Anthropology and the Method of Controlled Equivocation. Tipití: Journal of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America 2(1): 1.
Whyte, Kyle Powys. 2013a. On the Role of Traditional Ecological Knowledge as a Collaborative Concept: A Philosophical Study. Ecological Processes 2(1): 1–12.
Whyte, Kyle Powys. 2013b. Justice Forward: Tribes, Climate Adaptation and Responsibility. Climatic Change 120(3): 517–530.
Wildcat, Daniel R. 2010. Red Alert!: Saving the Planet with Indigenous Knowledge. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing.


Footnotes:

[1] “Workshop” was ruled out by the institutional regulations of our granting agency, the Department of the Interior.


Micha Rahder is Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography and Anthropology at Louisiana State University. Her research centers on the intersection of science and social justice in environmental thought and practice. She is currently working on a book manuscript about forest conservation in northern Guatemala, analyzing how violence and inequality affect the production and interpretation of technoscientific knowledge about the landscape. Her work draws on cultural anthropology, ecology, feminist theory, Latin American studies, critical geography, and science and technology studies (STS). She is also interested in human-technology relations, futures and temporality, evolutionary theory, and critical pedagogy.


This post is part of our thematic series: Anthropology and Climate Change: Intersections of Teaching, Interdisciplinarity, and Activism.

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